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Newfoundland chopper-safety report due this week

Recommendations from a probe into helicopter safety off Newfoundland are expected this week but they won't be made public right away.

Inquiry commissioner Robert Wells is expected to report by Friday to the federal-provincial board that regulates oil activity offshore.

But it's up to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board to make those findings public.

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The board has 30 days after receiving the report to release it, spokesman Sean Kelly said in an e-mail Monday.

He said board members will take one week to review the recommendations before making them public.

The board established the inquiry after Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the sea off Newfoundland last year, killing 17 of 18 people onboard.

Mr. Wells, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, was to assess whether helicopter travel to offshore oil sites more than 300 kilometres east of St. John's is as safe as possible.

He heard a wide range of evidence after the inquiry began a year ago. It included riveting testimony from Robert Decker, the sole survivor of the Cougar disaster, and heart-wrenching submissions by grieving loved ones of the other victims.

Lawyer Jamie Martin, who represented those families, told the inquiry last month during final presentations that the crash raises serious questions about the offshore oil regulator's independence.

Critics say the board is in a conflict of interest because it is mandated to develop oil resources to the maximum extent while also protecting workers and the environment.

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Norway, Australia and the United Kingdom have created separate offshore-safety agencies.

Mr. Martin cited testimony from the families of workers who were killed in the crash. Concerns about helicopter malfunctions, training, ill-fitting immersion suits and a lack of safety information were long-standing and often went unanswered, the inquiry heard.

They underscored "the need for a regulatory board that is responsive, and one that is accountable for its decisions," said Mr. Martin.

"Mr. Commissioner, the families have every confidence that you will conduct a thorough analysis and consider the need for reforms, and in particular, whether there needs to be a regulator independent of government and industry."

Mr. Martin's remarks ran counter to the stance taken by the umbrella group for oil companies.

Lewis Manning, the lawyer for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told the inquiry there's no need for a regulatory shakeup.

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"Everything we've heard from this inquiry indicates that improvements to helicopter passenger safety can be accommodated within the existing regulatory structures," he said last month.

The report expected by Friday will focus on the first phase of the inquiry.

The second phase will include Mr. Wells's examination of a Transportation Safety Board report on the cause of the crash. The TSB report is expected in the coming weeks.

The TSB has already cited a loss of oil pressure after two titanium studs securing the oil-filter assembly to the Sikorsky S-92's main gearbox snapped in flight. Oil flowing through the main gearbox helps power the chopper's rotor drive.

The pilots of Cougar Flight 491 were taking workers to the White Rose and Hibernia oil fields. They reported a loss of oil pressure about 11 minutes before plunging into the ocean 55 kilometres east of St. John's.

The Canadian Press

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